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Posts Tagged ‘Madeleine L’Engle’

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“Do you have the courage to go alone?” Mrs. Whatsit asked.

“No.” Meg’s voice was flat. “But it doesn’t matter.” She turned to her father and Calvin. “You know it’s the only thing to do.”

—Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

I picked up A Wrinkle in Time again a few weeks ago, after the hubs and I went to see Ava DuVernay’s multiracial, star-studded, visually dazzling new adaptation.

I had some reservations about the film, especially the adult casting. I had trouble forgetting that I was watching Reese Witherspoon and Oprah instead of Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Which. But I loved Storm Reid’s turn as Meg Murry: lonely, stubborn, fiercely loving, at once brave and fearful – which is to say, utterly human.

The film inspired me to dive back into the book. And from the first line – “It was a dark and stormy night” – I was swept up again by the story of Meg and Calvin and Charles Wallace. It’s odd and mysterious and wonderful, and I’ve enjoyed it before. But this time, these particular lines stopped me in my tracks.

I’ve been following the word brave and its fellows – courage, resilience – for a long time now. My word for this year, also related, is grit. Meg’s words, and especially her actions, reminded me of my word, and the lines in Paula McLain’s novel Love and Ruin about the young soldiers who relied on grit when their courage failed them.

Meg realizes, in this moment, that it doesn’t matter if she feels brave enough to go and rescue Charles Wallace. She simply has to do it. Like all my other heroines, she understands that going forward is the only thing to do. And she does it – though she’s terrified. (Spoiler alert: she succeeds, and makes it back home, along with her loved ones. But it’s the doing – not the outcome – that matters.)

Sometimes, like Meg, I don’t know if I have the courage to do hard things. But it doesn’t always matter: they’ve often got to be done. Sometimes grit is what’s left when your courage fails you, when you can’t summon the fire of bravery or even a glowing ember. In those times, grit provides the traction needed to move forward.

I love so many things about A Wrinkle in Time: the whimsy and magic, the deep love the characters have for each other, the celebration of light and hope amid unimaginable darkness. But I’m holding these words especially close as I walk through a blustery, fitful spring. Meg and her creator, Madeleine, both knew a thing or two about grit. And so do I.

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book catapult bookstore interior san diego books

We’ve had April showers, April snow, April bright sunshine…I don’t know anymore, y’all. But I know the books are saving my life, as always. Here’s the latest batch:

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
I dove back into L’Engle’s classic after seeing the visually stunning new film. (I have thoughts about the film, but that’s another post.) I was surprised at how many details I’d forgotten, many of which director Ava DuVernay included. I love Meg Murry, and this time, her realization that no one else will save her rang especially true to me.

A Howl of Wolves, Judith Flanders
London editor Sam Clair is a reluctant (at best) theatregoer, but she drags her cop boyfriend, Jake, to a West End production starring her neighbor and friend. When the show’s director ends up hanged onstage, Sam and Jake are drawn into the resulting investigation. Well plotted; I like Sam and her dry wit. A solid fourth entry in this series. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 15).

The Wild Woman’s Guide to Traveling the World, Kristin Rockaway
Sophie Bruno is a meticulous planner in her professional and personal life. But when her best friend ditches her during a Hong Kong vacation, Sophie meets a dreamy artist guy and ends up making some drastic changes. I liked the premise, but found Sophie irritating – though I cheered at her eventual career move. Found at the Book Catapult in San Diego (pictured above).

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, ed. Manjula Martin
I picked up this essay collection at McNally Jackson last year, and dove into it as part of my nonfiction #unreadshelfproject. It’s uneven but fascinating: varied takes on the perils, rewards and frustrations of earning a living as a writer. Standouts: essays by Nina MacLaughlin, Meaghan O’Connell, Daniel José Older and Martin herself.

The Case for Jamie, Brittany Cavallaro
Jamie Watson hasn’t seen Charlotte Holmes for a year, since a confrontation on a Sussex lawn that left someone dead. Back at his Connecticut boarding school, Jamie suspects the Moriartys are up to their old tricks. Cavallaro writes especially well about what happens in a relationship after a rupture. A fast-paced, heartbreaking, stellar third book in this series.

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
I’d been meaning to read this slim novel (my first Strout) for a while, and snagged it on remainder at the Harvard Book Store. It’s spare and luminous, with beautiful sentences and insights on grief, mother-daughter relationships and class divides. I didn’t love it as many others did, but it was worth reading.

Mary B, Katherine J. Chen
Mary Bennet, as everyone knows, is the plain sister: not beautiful, witty or talented. But she has a story, and Chen’s debut gives her the chance to tell it. The first few chapters dragged (does the world really need another Pride and Prejudice rehash?), but things pick up after that. Warning: this remake does not treat the other Bennets kindly. I had mixed feelings about this one, but it was certainly interesting. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 24).

The Splendour Falls, Susanna Kearsley
I fell in love with Kearsley’s historical novels this winter, and this one – set in Chinon, France – was wonderfully atmospheric. It’s much earlier than the others I’ve read, so the writing and plot are not nearly as accomplished. But I still found it engaging.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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summer sunset view porch

“Lately I’ve been waking up at 3 a.m.,” a friend admitted in a group email last month.

It was only a passing comment; we were talking about when we find time to read, and she confessed to snatching an hour here and there during her nocturnal wakings. But the 3 a.m. comment caused a quiet thump of recognition, because for months, I have been waking in the night, too. A flurry of responses from the group confirmed it: we’re not the only ones.

I think it started for me last summer, as I switched jobs, moved to a new apartment and grieved over several national tragedies. It has continued, off and on, through the fall and winter: the election and its fallout, significant stress at work, many other challenges in my life and the lives of people I love.

Late at night, I often find myself in bed with my journal and a pen in hand, pushing my glasses up on my nose. I keep the lamp on after my husband rolls over and closes his eyes, trying to write my way toward a peaceful place, taking deep breaths so I can turn out the light and head for sleep.

Some nights I can dive into a book, lose myself in a good story or some luminous poetry. Other nights, I need to trace the swirling thoughts, get them out of my brain and onto the page. Then I can try to sleep. But I often – though not always – end up wide awake, at some ungodly single-digit hour of the night.

My friend lives six time zones away, and our fellow nighttime wakers are scattered across the country, but it still comforted me, somehow, to know I wasn’t alone in this. The next few times I woke up in the middle of the night, I lay listening to the whir of traffic outside, thinking of my friends, wakeful in their houses, in Illinois or North Carolina or Maine. It made me feel better to picture their faces, even though I knew the fact of our communal waking wouldn’t solve anything for any of us.

Madeleine L’Engle, one of my patron saints, begins her memoir The Irrational Season with a similar image: the silhouette of Madeleine herself, standing at the window of her apartment on the Upper West Side, holding a mug of hot bouillon on a dark morning in early winter. She peers out the blinds to the street that is never quite silent, the building across the way whose lights never all go out at once. She sips her bouillon, savoring her small rebellion against the tyranny of the clock. “I enjoy these occasional spells of nocturnal wakefulness,” she says. “And I am never awake alone.”

I’m not always so sanguine about my own nocturnal waking, though sometimes I can turn over and fall back asleep, or think about something comforting (including my friends, awake in their own houses). Sometimes I get up for a drink of water, walking around the wicker chest at the end of our bed, down the darkened hallway and glancing out the bathroom window, at the streetlights one block over, or a winking star. (After eight months in this apartment, I can finally walk through it in the dead of night without crashing into anything.)

“I do not think we talk enough about how every one of us / Has shuffled around the house in the middle of the night / Worried,” Brian Doyle says, in a poem aptly titled “Three in the Morning.” A few lines later, he adds wryly, “Sometimes there is zero / To be done except shuffle around wearily.”

Sometimes, I might add, there’s not much to be done except lie there a while, taking deep breaths or running the lines of an old hymn through my head. The anxiety doesn’t always dissipate, though sometimes it quiets to a background hum. But it does help, usually, to think of my friends, or of Madeleine at the window with her mug of bouillon, watching the slow nighttime life of her neighborhood. If I am awake, and especially if I’m worried, it helps to know I’m not alone.

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advent book stack

We’ve come around to the season of Advent again – that quiet, twinkly time of anticipation before the glorious joy of Christmas. As usual, I’m marking the season by humming “O Come O Come Emmanuel” over and over again, and by reading.

Fittingly, I discovered Advent because of a book: Watch for the Light, a collection of readings for Advent and Christmas, which I picked up at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., many years ago. The contributors are a diverse, thoughtful group of scholars, poets, philosophers and theologians, and their words help me live more deeply into this season every year. From essays by Kathleen Norris and Brennan Manning to poems by T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath (yes, really), this collection always wakes me up, reminds me to pay attention – which is what Advent is all about.

Kathleen Norris’ lovely memoir The Cloister Walk is loosely organized around the liturgical year, and I turned back to the Advent chapters last weekend, rereading them by the light of our glowing Christmas tree. She speaks of reading the words of the prophet Isaiah on the first Sunday of Advent at a Benedictine monastery, and being grateful that such poetry exists in the Bible, and that “it tastes so good in [my] mouth.”

Madeleine L’Engle, another one of my guides, wrote an odd, striking memoir-cum-meditation, The Irrational Season, that is also somewhat tied to the liturgical year. Some of it is a little esoteric for me, but the Advent chapter, “The Night is Far Spent,” is quietly moving. Madeleine writes of being wakeful in the night, standing at the window of her New York City apartment with a mug of bouillon in her hands, musing on time, creation and the mystery of Advent. It’s an image I return to every year.

I fell completely in love with Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice when my friend Julie handed it to me, several Christmases ago. It’s a quiet, lovely story of five rather vaguely connected people who all end up at an old house in northern Scotland at Christmastime. All of them are struggling with different griefs, and all of them find unexpected joy and redemption during their time together. The ending makes me cry.

Someone has said that poetry gets us closest to the mystery of this season, and for that I like Luci Shaw’s collection Accompanied by Angels, which takes us through the life of Jesus. Many of the poems are short, with striking images. Taken together, they form a mosaic that highlights a few new facets of this Jesus who is so well known and yet so mysterious.

I’ve long loved Father Tim Kavanagh and his adventures in Mitford, North Carolina. Shepherds Abiding, the eighth Mitford novel, is a sweet story of one Advent/Christmas season in which Father Tim restores a derelict Nativity scene as a gift for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, other denizens of Mitford are going about their own Christmas business. Like all the Mitford novels, it’s funny, down-to-earth and quietly hopeful.

I reach for this stack of books every Advent, and their words – especially those in Watch for the Light – have become for me part of the fabric of the season, a way to observe these few liminal weeks between Ordinary Time and Christmas. As the days grow suddenly dark and short, I am watching for the light in both literal and metaphorical ways. These words help light the way for me, every year.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading during this Advent season?

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memorial church interior harvard yard

It is my Lent to break my Lent,
To eat when I would fast,
To know when slender strength is spent,
Take shelter from the blast
When I would run with wind and rain,
To sleep when I would watch.
It is my Lent to smile at pain
But not ignore its touch.
It is my Lent to listen well
When I would be alone,
To talk when I would rather dwell
In silence, turn from none
Who call on me, to try to see
That what is truly meant
Is not my choice. If Christ’s I’d be
It’s thus I’ll keep my Lent.

—Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine is one of my spiritual heroes; I love everything she writes, from memoir to semi-science-fiction to thoughts on faith and art. This poem was recommended by Kari.

A blessed Lent to you.

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For a lifelong reader, I came late to the work of Madeleine L’Engle.

madeleine l'engle books shelf collection

I didn’t have a taste for fantasy as a child, so I never read A Wrinkle in Time or any of its sequels. For years, I didn’t know that Madeleine had written other books, that in fact her oeuvre ranged from adult fiction to memoir to poetry. But when my friend Teresa sold off a few of her books at the end of one semester in college, I picked up an old paperback copy of Walking on Water, Madeleine’s book of reflections on faith and art. And for nearly two years after that, I could be found with one of her books – The Small Rain, A Circle of Quiet, the entire Time Quintet – in my hand.

I love all Madeleine’s work in different ways, but A Circle of Quiet gave me a phrase that continues to resonate, striking a deep gong in my soul.

She recounts:

A winter ago I had an after-school seminar for high-school students and in one of the early sessions Una, a brilliant fifteen-year-old, a born writer who came to Harlem from Panama five years ago, and only then discovered the conflict between races, asked me, “Mrs. Franklin, do you really and truly believe in God with no doubts at all?”

“Oh, Una, I really and truly believe in God with all kinds of doubts.”

But I base my life on this belief.

That quiet anecdote, slipped in between Madeleine’s musings on ontology (the why of being) and a digression on the punctuation of A Wrinkle in Time, has changed the way I view faith, and the way I view life.

I’m at Micha Boyett’s blog today, participating in her One Good Phrase series. Click over there to read about how Madeleine’s phrase continues to resonate for me.

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Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices, Leonard S. Marcus
I wrote my master’s thesis on Madeleine’s memoirs, with nods to A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels. So I found this collection of 50 interviews, with Madeleine’s family, colleagues, students and friends, fascinating. Some people praise her to the skies, while others seem determined to prove she had feet of clay. While Madeleine was wise and brilliant, she was no saint: she could be stubborn and demanding. Recommended for fellow L’Engle fans.

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
Mildred Lathbury, thirtyish English spinster, meets her new neighbors (a rather eccentric, glamorous couple) and gets drawn into their marital troubles. Meanwhile, she provides comfort, a listening ear and cups of tea to various friends (all of whom assume she has “nothing better to do” since she’s single). Some amusing moments, but overall I found the story rather dull. Set in the same era as Miss Read’s tales, but not nearly as much fun.

The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, Mitali Perkins
When Sunita’s grandparents come to visit from India, she struggles to reconcile her family’s traditional roots with her modern, California teenage life. (Mitali is herself an Indian transplant to the U.S.) I loved Sunita’s wise grandfather, Dadu, and her straight-talking best friend Liz, though Sunita came off a bit bratty sometimes. A sweet, thoughtful exploration of feeling caught between two cultures.

Renegade Magic, Stephanie Burgis
Kat Stephenson, 12-year-old Regency-era magical Guardian, returns. After Kat’s enemy Lady Fotherington nearly ruins her oldest sister’s wedding, Kat’s stepmother packs the family off to Bath, hoping to find a fiance for Kat’s other sister before any scandal can leak out. But Kat senses “wild magic” in the air around the Baths, and both her new friend Lucy and her foolish brother Charles get caught up in a dangerous game. I like Kat’s spunk, though her magic is not very well explained. Still an enjoyable story. (Second in a trilogy.)

The House on Willow Street, Cathy Kelly
In the tiny Irish town of Avalon, four women – sisters Tess and Suki, postmistress Danae, and Danae’s niece Mara – help one another navigate personal crossroads. Tess’ marriage and antique shop are both struggling; Suki is fleeing a dirt-digging biographer; Mara is healing from a broken heart and Danae wonders if it’s time to tell the secret she’s kept for 18 years. A heartwarming story with charming small-town characters – cozy and hopeful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 8).

On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, Simon Garfield
I love maps, and I found Garfield’s book utterly fascinating. He covers ancient maps (as much theology as geography), the age of exploration, the American Civil War, polar voyages, traveling by map in the movies (from Casablanca to The Muppets), GPS, guidebooks, even mapping the brain. Crammed with interesting facts, but written in a witty, compelling style. Garfield also muses on how maps reflect our perceptions of ourselves, and our quest to find our place in the world.

House of Light, Mary Oliver
I love Oliver’s work, and enjoyed this slim collection of quiet, luminous poems. It contains “The Summer Day,” which I already adored, but I found some new gems, including the end of “The Ponds”: “Still, what I want in my life / is to be willing / to be dazzled.” Lovely and honest scenes from nature, and musings on our “place in the family of things.”

The Lost Art of Mixing, Erica Bauermeister
A gorgeous sequel to The School of Essential Ingredients (which I adored), about chef Lillian and the people whose lives intertwine at her restaurant. Sous chef Chloe and dishwasher Finnegan are both healing from heartbreak of different kinds; Isabelle is struggling against memory loss; accountant Al takes refuge in numbers as his marriage falls apart; and Lillian herself faces a new, unexpected challenge. Luminous writing, and characters I wanted to meet. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 24).

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
I’d never read this classic, and finished it in a day. An odd, dark, yet hopeful story of censorship, war and preserving the written word against all odds. I didn’t connect deeply with any of the characters, but the message is powerful (and oddly prescient, considering it was written in the 1950s). Not a favorite, but I’m glad I read it.

What are you reading lately?

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